Who would have predicted I’d still be living in Somerville, the most densely populated city in New England, six years after coming here for school? The small natural spaces in our city made it possible. Coordinating the programming in and maintenance of our eight school gardens has been an incredible learning experience for me. I can hardly believe that my job is to encourage play, exploration, and learning in these small urban ecosystems. However, there is one additional space that provides Somerville with an especially special natural oasis: The Somerville Community Growing Center.
The Growing Center is a city park, but it’s nothing like any other. Built as a result of a community-driven design process with volunteer labor and donated materials, it has matured into a vibrant ecosystem. Within its mere 1/4 acre, there’s a pond, trees to climb, a performing stage, fruit trees, wild flowers, a bee hive, solar panels, community compost bins, vegetable gardens, a grassy lawn and labyrinth, and numerous pieces of art. Some see it as a place to play, some a cultural center, some a medatative safe space, some an outdoor performance area, some a place to learn to grow food, and still others that place where maple syrup is made in the city each spring.
One of my favorite events of the summer was the first ever “Growing Villen Voices Open Mic.” Youth from Teen Empowerment and Groundwork Somerville joined together to organize the event which featured youth-cooked free food (with lots of yummy produce) and a talented line-up of youth poets, singers, performers, and activists. The event drew a diverse crowd of youth, mentors, and fans – many of whom hadn’t ever been to the Growing Center before. The outdoor venue certainly wasn’t the focus of the event, but it did influence its vibe. Bird songs accompanied stand up poetry. Wind interrupted the line-up by lifting a tent into the air. The dusk signaled the end of the event. We appreciated the sunny dry day. Natural rhythms like these are rarely factors in our daily urban lives because we spend so little time outside.
The most important part of the Growing Center for me is the sense of wonder, exploration, and spontaneous learning it prompts in visitors of all ages. Being in natural spaces seems to encourage these responses. Those of us living in paved, built, urban spaces, however, rarely get to have these experiences especially if we lack the means to travel outside of the city. For me, the Somerville Community Growing Center is one of Somerville’s gems – setting our city apart from other dense urban communities and making it a great place for all residents to live, work, and play.